Magnolia Festival regularly marks the end of Summer and beginning of Fall for festival goers. While Magfest’s timing remains a constant, new ownership of Magfest has presented a few changes. For the first time in 14 years MagFest went on without the music of Peter Rowan and the Amphitheater stage went without the artistic displays of Scramble Campbell. Also, the programs available at the gate contained only a map and schedule; lacking information about the bands performing such as where they’re from, what kind of music they play, etc. Despite these questionable changes, the festival prevailed and could be hailed as a major turning point in MagFest’s unfolding history.
Spirit of Suwannee’s Amphitheater stage is a must see venue for music. The stage, nestled at the bottom of sloping land engulfed in trees tied together with lights and hammocks, played host to the first musical acts of the weekend such as Jacksonville, FL ‘s kLoB. Kip Kolb’s unique down home crooning voice atop Brian Jenkins’ genius rhythm kicked off the festival proper. The 7 Walkers’ set seemed to lack a cohesive flow but their music and style shone through it all. George Porter Jr. is limitless with this ensemble. Papa Mali took lead vocals with Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th street”. The set’s Hot & Cold feel became even more evident when Papa Mali announced he was too hot and asked for the lights to be turned down when seconds later George Porter proclaimed he was too cold and needed the lights turned backed up.
Friday, the first full day of music, could not have started off on a better note. Whetherman filled the air of the amphitheatre with fun & pure harmonies blanketing Nicholas Williams’ lyrics from the heart. His band, composed of local Jacksonville musicians, is top notch. Each member serves their purpose to the song and nothing more. Whetherman’s music is refreshing in that the songs are created to capture something; not to sound like something. Rushad Eggleston, AKA Tornado Rider, brought his eccentricity to the Meadow stage wearing only a peter pan hat and striped hot pink skin tight pants. Stomping around the stage with his cello can seem over the top but his talent is unquestionable as he riffs his instrument with the ferocity of a heavy metal guitar god. After climbing a stage tower and screaming “I Am The Falcon!” several times, he said goodbye to the audience in tongues that don’t exist. In an ode to remaining childlike in nature, Dread Clampitt performed “forever young” at the amphitheater. Tallahassee Natives Heywire brought their country twang to the Front Porch stage while the ineffable Colonel Bruce Hampton led his top squad, The Pharoah Gummitt, onto the meadow stage for smooth grooves with a timeless feel created by band members Duane Trucks on Drums, Kevin Scott on Bass, and Nick Johnson on guitar. Railroad Earth came out pickin’ under the early evening sun. Railroad Earth passes the solo torch around often but everybody keeps the song on track even amidst arrows being shot back and forth between John Skehan’s mandolin and Tim Carbone’s Violin.
The Corbitt Brothers presented their raucous North Florida style to the music hall. Though Isaac Corbitt produces harmonica licks reminiscent of someone like John Popper, make no mistake; Isaac Corbitt plays the harmonica like Isaac Corbitt. He peels off runs usually reserved for the most talented of guitar players. Back outside, Steel Pulse’s soulful roots reggae grooves injected liveliness into MagFest’s mainline. Their first show ever as a band, Travelin’ McCourys & Keller Williams started things off with “The Hobo Song” and kept the pure bluegrass flowing the rest of the evening including an interesting take on Keller’s “Freaker by The Speaker”. Lucinda Williams’ hauntingly seductive version of “Born To Be Loved” seemed to slow down time in the sexiest way. Friday evening’s jam culminated with Rushad Eggleston kicking off “Mountain Jumper”, a song he used to play with his old band Crooked Still, alongside The McCourys, Railroad Earth, and others. The day ended with a 2 hour set from the jam-band moe. echoing through the trees
The New Orleans Suspects strolled onto the meadow stage Saturday afternoon, delivering magfest with a much needed dose of down home bayou boogie. Colonel Bruce joined in along with “The Doctor” Roosevelt on pedal steel for an intense version of “Lovelight”. Jacksonville’s bluegrass badasses, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, performed to a healthy congregation inside of the music hall. Mike Coker is one of the most talented young banjo players one could see. It is hard to tell there is an instrument in his hands for it rests on his shoulder like a natural extension of his body. Brett Bass’ vocals and overall swagger is that of a less self-conscious Johnny Cash while handling his guitar with fierce definitude. Fellow Duval County delegates, Chroma, performed on the front porch stage joined by keyboardist Angel Garcia (who was hearing most songs for the first time during the set). Chroma exudes a certain professional silliness that transforms everything they do into a fun loving moment. Even on a gargantuan groove in 7/8 time, the fun-level is maintained. Paul Miller original, “Rachel’s Old Soul” preceded vocalist Rachel Murray sitting in for vocal duties on Chroma originals “Regret” and “Free yourself”. Cornmeal’s set was highlighted by a sit-in from Banjo Virtuoso, Bela Fleck, on a “Shady Grove” oozing with personality. Allie Kral shreds the fiddle with an 80s hair metal band type fervor.
The Infamous Krewe is a supergroup of soul stirring & barrier dissolving proportions. Presenting the show in two halves: First, Toubab Krewe featuring members of Infamous Stringdusters and secondly Infamous Stringdusters featuring members of Toubab Krewe. Sporting guitars and bass crafted from cigar boxes, Toubab set the evening ablaze. Toubab Krewe’s music is historically all about roots digging so deep that one’s location on the surface is rendered insignificant for at some point everywhere becomes “here”. Collaboration with the Infamous Stringdusters has brought Toubab to a new apex in their style. In one set they went from melting heavy metal-esque African infused grooves into raw genuine footstompin’ bluegrass into a mixture of the two, as evident in a haunting rendition of the standard “Raleigh and Spencer” beautifully led vocally by Justin Perkins who chanted “You can stomp all the flowers around my grave / They’ll rise up and bloom again”. The Infamous Stringdusters are a force to be reckoned with.
They’re a band grandparents would enjoy on a front porch and 3 hours later would be banging broom handles on the floor to quiet them down in the basement. Their center morphs throughout the stage and all members gravitate toward this center. Few bands remain locked in eye to eye contact while making music as much as these guys. Such genuine bliss and joy was being experienced on stage that the bluegrass nearly became pornographic in nature. Bela Fleck & The Flecktones are on the next level of music as far as everything else at Magfest was concerned. Their abstract time signatures and abrupt changing of keys can make their music difficult to enjoy in the usual sense of dancing, being able to comprehend what’s happening, and being able to know what’s coming. However, this band is here to be enjoyed cerebrally.
The brotherly rhythm section of Bass genius Victor Wooten and percussionist Futureman, introduced by Piano and Harmonica hero, Howard Levy, as “Someone who lives simultaneously in the past and future”, is so thick and thin, loose and tight, heavy and light that one can’t help but be put into a state of awe as one witnesses these two play an inter-dimensional rhythmic game of connect the dots. Saturday ended for the magfest vets righteously with Donna the Buffalo before moe’s invariable aimlessness came from the main stage. Moe comes across as a group of talented musicians who decided to “be a jam band” and lacks the soul stirring emotion one would hope to see in a two night headliner at a music festival.
As Sunday rolled around, many festival goers packed up camp to prepare for departure after enjoying some more music. A Sunday at Suwannee wouldn’t be proper without a set from The Lee Boys who rekindled all lost energy over the weekend as arms raised to the air in reverence for the power the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park delivers.
Review by Scott Horowitz
Photos by Phillip C. Sunkel IV